KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When the Royals open a three-game set with the Angels starting tonight at Kauffman Stadium they will be on the final leg of a brutal 13-game stretch in which they will have faced some of the toughest pitchers in all of baseball.
So far, the results have not been good. The Royals are just 4-6, although they were 3-1 against the four Cy Young winners they faced in that stretch.
And it won’t get any easier against the Angels but ….
Seriously, I understand that fans are discouraged because after a fabulous 10-game winning streak, the Royals immediately dropped back by losing six of seven. One step forward, two steps back, it seems.
But really, we must look more closely at this recent stretch. Yes, the bottom line is that the Royals have given five games back in the win-loss column.
But during this losing spell, the Royals actually have played really well. They have pitched fabulously (aside from ace James Shields) and played great, if not spectacular, defense.
This is not a team that is just mailing it in. They are playing hard and playing well enough to win.
That they aren’t winning is twofold: They have caught some horrible breaks (just like they caught some great breaks during the 10-game winning streak), such as in Wednesday’s loss when Lorenzo Cain rocketed a liner toward the right-field corner that would have tied the game and set them up to win. The problem was that the Dodgers’ 6-foot-5 first baseman, Scott Van Slyke, leaped and made a snow-cone catch that turned into a double play, ending the game. In the series before that, every Seattle blooper and bleeder seemed to find open space during that sweep, while every Royals liner found a Seattle glove.
This happens over the course of the season. Overall, the Royals have been playing great ball for the last three weeks.
TIME TO TURN THEIR FATE
All that said, the Royals do need to minimize these downturns. It’s really important to take two of three from the Angels this weekend and recover that winning feeling.
The Royals are still relative infants when it comes to understanding what it takes to win a division or make the playoffs — it is necessary to view every game, even in June, as a potential playoff-deciding game. Royals players talk often during these losing spells about how it’s a "long season." But the truth is, the season gets shorter every day. Good teams — playoff teams — minimize the damage during lulls. And that’s what the Royals must do this weekend.
WHERE THE POWER COMES FROM
OK, I do have a biased view about hitting instruction, mainly because I wrote a book years ago with Charley Lau Jr., the son of perhaps the most famous hitting coach of all time, Charley Lau.
Researching his father’s instruction, and spending a year talking about hitting mechanics with Charley Lau Jr., made me appreciate all the different technical methods available to be a consistent hitter.
And every time I see a hitter who employs the top-hand release approach to hitting, I wonder why the Royals can’t do that more. Astute Royals fans will remember that Lau turned George Brett into a Hall of Famer with the top-hand release approach. This mechanical technique allows a hitter to get full extension by releasing the top hand off the bat at contact. And also, it promotes more weight transfer to the front side as well as keeping the bat on a level plane much longer through the hitting zone.
Anyway, I am reminded of Lau’s teaching when I see hitters come into Kauffman Stadium and smash opposite-field homers to right-center, something Royals hitters view as almost impossible. We have seen so many top-handed release hitters do it — Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones — at The K that it makes me nostalgic. And we saw it again Wednesday when Matt Kemp walloped an opposite-field homer. If you see the replay again you will notice Kemp’s top-hand release. It was an almost effortless swing.
I just wonder why more Royals don’t employ this method. Alex Gordon is the only one who comes close, and it’s no coincidence that he probably has the prettiest swing on the team. And no, before you ask, Brett has not tried to alter the mechanics of Royals hitters during his annual spring visits or during his stint as hitting coach. He’s not big on revamping any hitter’s mechanics unless they ask.
BIG GAME JAMES
To be fair, Shields hasn’t been awful. But he has not been the ace the Royals need right now. And if he were his normal self, the Royals would have won Friday night and Wednesday night when the Royals averaged 4.5 runs for the two games (normally plenty of run support for Shields).
But Shields over his last seven starts has a 5.48 ERA, and teams are hitting .319 against him with a .604 slugging percentage.
This is one of the worst and most peculiar slumps of his career, though Shields, as prideful as they come, won’t admit he is in a slump.
"I’m just making a few bad pitches here and there," he said recently.
Fans are beginning to grumble, knowing that Shields is almost surely gone after this season to test the free-agent market, a market that will price him out of Kansas City.
LET’S GO ROYALS: Check out these photos of fans and the excitement around Royals baseball.
During my Twitter chat Wednesday, some fans were disgruntled enough to suggest that Dayton Moore trade Shields at the break. There could be some logic to that, but keep in mind that the Royals now have perhaps the top rotation in all of baseball. And they would need someone to replace Shields if he is dealt — no one in the system is ready — which means they’d have to get a starter back in a deal. And that’s not going to make sense for their trading partner, most likely.
LOCAIN THE LEADOFF MAN
The Royals tried Cain in the leadoff spot for 10 games last season and he hit just .147 with a woeful .216 on-base percentage.
But club officials now are encouraged that he could be the leadoff man of the future, even when Nori Aoki comes off the disabled list. LoCain is a much different hitter this season with a much better swing — he has moved his hands closer to his body at address, has shortened his swing and is using the bigger muscles (not his hands, Rex), like his chest and lower body, to propel the swing. That’s the main reason he is hitting over .300 now.
Should be interesting to see how Ned Yost reacts when Aoki comes off the disabled list.